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Memorial Day and the Civil War Roll of Honor

The Memorial Day holiday we celebrate commemorates the Americans who lost their lives in the service of their country. The origins of the Memorial Day holiday go back to the era of the American Civil War, and they are shrouded in some controversy. The U.S. National Park Service credits women of Columbus, Georgia, with “establishing” the holiday; however, Columbus, Mississippi, has a strong claim of its own right for annually laying flowers on the graves of Confederate and Union soldiers, most of whom died at the Battle of Shiloh, since April 15, 1866. (View Source) In the North, the dedication of the large cemetery at Gettysburg in the summer of 1863 was an important milestone leading to the creation of a national holiday. In 1868, the head of the Union veterans organization, the Grand Army of the Republic, building on the southern practice, called for an annual “Decoration Day” to celebrate the 600,000 lives lost in that bloody conflict.

Certainly the sheer magnitude of Civil War fatalities (far more than in any other conflict the U.S. has participated, including the two World Wars)  affected private and public sentiments. As the tide began to turn for the Union Army in its struggle against the Confederacy, the federal government decided to make a concerted effort to identify and/or retrieve the remains of its fallen heroes. The task fell to the Army Quartermaster’s Department to locate the grave of every fallen Union soldier. Many of the dead would remain in their original burial sites, the battlefields themselves having been transformed into national cemeteries. In other instances (e.g., the victims of Andersonville and other P.O.W. camps), the Quartermaster’s Department would exhume the dead and rebury them alongside their comrades in more appropriate resting places.

Between 1865 and 1871, the Quartermaster’s Department released the identities of the 200,000 dead soldiers whose whereabouts it had certified in a 27-volume series of publications entitled, with some variations, “Roll of Honor: Names of Soldiers Who Died in Defense of the American Union, Interred in the National Cemeteries . . . .” The twofold purpose of the publication was (1) to memorialize “those heroes who have given up their lives upon the altar of their country, in defense of the American Union;” and (2) “to help friends, relatives, and surviving comrades locate the soldiers’ final resting place.” The “Roll of Honor” in and of itself is evidence of the government’s extraordinary attempt to identify and transfer the remains of its dead.

In 1994, consolidated the 27 volumes of the “Roll of Honor” into 10 hardcover books. GPC subsequently added an every-name index volume prepared by Martha and Bill Reamy and a supplementary book, “The Unpublished Roll of Honor,” compiled by Mark Hughes. (These volumes are now out of stock, but may be available on the used book market.)

The “Roll of Honor” reprint was an important contribution to Civil War and genealogical literature for several reasons. Prior to the reprint, researchers could avail themselves of a complete set of the “Roll of Honor” in only a few libraries outside of the Library of Congress. Nor was it easy to use when it could be found. The volumes were published as battlefield sites were surveyed, graves exhumed, and bodies reburied–state-by-state and cemetery-by-cemetery. The work as whole lacked a name index. Some of the volumes indicated a soldier’s former place of burial, while others did not. Given the genealogical uses of the “Roll of Honor” (it provides, generally, the soldier’s name, rank, regiment, company, and date of death), the reprint edition was of enormous importance in pulling all the information together and making it available in libraries throughout the U.S.–at a price of about $500.00.

Today, the ROLL OF HONOR: Civil War Union Soldiers, our CD-ROM version of the series, places the contents of the original 27 volumes within the financial reach of the individual researcher. The CD contains images of the pages of each volume in the series, as well as “The Unpublished Roll of Honor.” If your research places you on the trail of a fallen Union Army soldier, the ROLL OF HONOR is the most comprehensive, fast, and inexpensive source of information on Civil War fatalities. Unfortunately, the search engine on this CD-ROM will not work on a Apple computer or on a Windows 10 operating system or higher, so we no longer list it on our Web site. If your Windows operating system is earlier than Windows 10, and you wish to purchase one of the remaining ROLL OF HONOR CD’s, you can do so by mailing, faxing, or phoning in your payment in the amount of $60.00, which covers the cost of the CD and USPS shipping.